EPA to Reconsider Some New Source Review ChangesWASHINGTON, DC, July 25, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced that it is reconsidering some aspects of a final rule it issued on December 31, 2002, that revised the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program.
The changes issue by the agency on that date have drawn sharp criticism and have been challenged in court by public health groups and environmentalists. Critics contend the rules were adopted without adequate public review and undermine the Clean Air Act.
Established in 1977, the New Source Review program requires that an air pollution source, such as a power plant or industrial complex, install the best pollution control equipment available when it builds a new facility or when it makes a major modification that increases emissions from an existing facility.
Industry groups have long complained that the program is difficult to comply with because it creates uncertainty - a position that the Bush administration supports. The EPA says its rule change in December was meant to provider greater certainty without compromising air quality, but the outpouring of opposition and legal challenges appear to have prompted the administration to reconsider.
Critics contend that the rule changes simply added loopholes that made it easier for companies to avoid New Source Review requirements to install new pollution controls.
In addition to taking public comments, the EPA says it will hold a public meeting on August 14 in North Carolina.
Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, says today's move "suggests the Bush administration realizes it has a weak legal case."
Missouri River Legal Battle Takes Another TurnWASHINGTON, DC, July 25, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Army Corps has received another reprieve from a court order that would require the federal agency to lower water flows of the Missouri River in order to protected endangered species.
Late Thursday U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson in Minnesota granted the Corps a two week stay of a court ruling that would force the agency to lower the river or pay fines of $500,000 per day - starting today.
The decision delays resolution of a long running feud over the water levels of the Missouri during the summer months, when the piping plover and least tern - both endangered species - need river sandbars to nest.
On July 12 U.S. District U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the Corps to lower the water flows of its dams on the Missouri, but the agency refused, citing an contradictory court ruling made in 2002 by a federal judge in Nebraska and upheld by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in June 2003.
The 2002 ruling found that the Army Corps had an obligation to keep flows high enough to support the river's barges.
On July 22, Kessler cited the agency and the secretary of the Army in contempt and told the Corps it would face fines of $500,000 a day if it did not lower the water flow by Friday.
On July 25, U.S. District Court Judge Laurie Smith Camp ruling, said she would not hold the Corps in contempt of her 2002 ruling if the agency moves to resolve the legal controversy that emerged from a higher court.
The battle between barges and endangered species shifted to Magnuson's court in Minnesota on Thursday, after a federal judicial panel determined that the multiple cases involving the Corps and the Missouri River should be consolidated and moved to his court.
Conservationists believe the Army Corps is violating the Endangered Species Act by not reducing flows on the river and contend that lower water levels in the summer would encourage recreational use of the river. River barges operators and some agricultural interests say the economic interests of barge operation merit keeping the Missouri River high enough for barges to operate.
Democrats Ask for Investigation of EPA Enforcement OfficeWASHINGTON, DC, July 25, 2003 (ENS) - Congressional Democrats have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Inspector General to investigate the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance (OECA). Citing concerns about funding shortfalls, staff reductions and reports of lax enforcement, the group signed and sent a letter Thursday with the formal request.
"We are extremely troubled by recent news accounts asserting that the EPA inflated and misrepresented its enforcement staffing and record," the group wrote in a letter to EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley. "We are equally concerned that the enforcement office has insufficient personnel and resources to enforce our nation's environmental laws."
The letter was signed by Representatives John Dingell of Michigan, James Oberstar of Minnesota, Hilda Solis of California and Rich Boucher of Virginia, along with Senators Barbara Boxer of California, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. Vermont Senator James Jeffords, an Independent, also signed the letter.
The group requested five assessments from the Inspector General.
They want to know if the office has sufficient agents and resources to achieve its criminal and civil enforcement objectives as well as its additional duties due to increased homeland security.
The letter asks Tinsley to assess whether enforcement resources are being utilized appropriately and effectively, the effectiveness of OECA's management approach and structure, as well as the accuracy of EPA's representations of its enforcement efforts.
The Bush administration has defended the performance of OECA despite repeated allegations of lax enforcement and a staff spread too thin.
Environmentalists Wary of New White House Energy Group
The organizations says that the White House's newly created Rocky Mountain Energy Council to undermine the administration's statutory obligation to "foster and promote the improvement of environmental quality."
The Rocky Mountain Energy Council is an administrative initiative to work across the federal governments and with state governments to more effectively manage energy development on public lands in the Rocky Mountains. It held closed meetings in Denver on July 8 and 9.
Officials with the White House Council on Environmental Quality told the Denver Post that officials with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, the White House, and Department of Interior attended the meeting.
"The Rocky Mountain Energy Council has shut out the public in favor of doing its business behind closed doors," said NRDC Attorney Sharon Buccino.
"It looks like the latest attempt by the White House to give industry the inside track on energy policy, at the expense of public health and our public lands."
NRDC wants to know if representatives of the oil and gas industry were also present and say it is concerned the new council appears to Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group - often called the Energy Task Force.
Environmental groups are involved in legislation that seeks to force the White House to release records of the meetings of Cheney's Energy Task Force.
On July 8, a federal court ordered the White House to disclose the details of the group's activities, but Cheney has not complied with the court order.
NRDC and a coalition of Rocky Mountain energy and public lands groups also sent a letter to White House Council on Environmental Quality James Connaughton Thursday, asking that he either open the RMEC to public scrutiny or disband the group. The letter's signatories include groups based in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Montana, as well as several national groups.
Senate Democrats Unveil New Rival to Bush's Healthy ForestsWASHINGTON, DC, July 25, 2003 (ENS) - Senate Democrats introduced a new wildfire bill Thursday that its sponsors say will protect forests and communities from wildfire without the changes to judicial and public review contained in rival legislation supported by the Bush administration and passed by the House.
Sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Barbara Boxer of California, the "Forestry and Community Assistance Act" is presented to rival the administration's "Healthy Forests" wildfire plan, which is the basis for legislation that has passed the House and was approved Thursday by the Senate Agriculture Committee.
"Our forests are threatened by wildfires that are a direct result of past management practices, and we need to address this through prudent management policies," said Leahy.
This new bill, Leahy says, does not "bend the rules that the Forest Service will not be held accountable to anyone but themselves will not protect our forests."
Supporters of the administration's plan contend the legal challenges to federal agency forest management plans are delaying much needed work to reduce the threat of wildfire.
Critics - including Leahy and Boxer - say Healthy Forests needlessly cuts out the public, does not prioritize projects to safeguard communities and is a giveaway to the timber industry. The Forestry and Community Assistance Act, according to its sponsors, will focus resources on communities most at risk of fire and will emphasize addressing large scale insect and disease epidemics.
"We need to put an end to so-called wildfire prevention policies that are driven more by a thirst for commercial timber than by the need to protect our communities," said Boxer.
This is the fourth fire bill that has now been introduced in the Senate. The National Interagency Fire Center reported Thursday that seven large fires started yesterday, bringing the number of active large fires to 42.
NIFC says about 1.6 million acres have burned this year, compared to 3.7 million acres by this time in 2002.
Study Finds Atmosphere Boundary Rising, Humans ResponsibleBOULDER, Colorado, July 25, 2003 (ENS) - Human related emissions are largely responsible for an increase in the height of the tropopause - the boundary between the two lowest of the atmosphere, according to research published today in the journal Science.
The researchers note that their study provides additional evidence that emissions from power plants, automobiles, and other human-related sources are having profound impacts on the atmosphere and global climate.
"Although not conclusive in itself, this research is an important piece in the jigsaw puzzle," explained Tom Wigley, a senior scientist with National Center for Atmospheric Research and co-author of the article. "Determining why the height of the tropopause is increasing gives us insights into the causes of the overall warming of the lower atmosphere."
Although numerous past studies have pointed to human activities as a leading cause of global warming, this is the first to evaluate impacts on the tropopause. It also provides evidence that temperatures are rising in the troposphere, the lowest layer in the atmosphere.
The tropopause is situated at the upper boundary of the troposphere, where temperatures cool with increased altitude, and at the lower boundary of the stratosphere, where temperatures warm with increased altitude.
Observations and climate models both show that the tropopause, which is about five to 10 miles (eight to 16 kilometers) above Earth's surface depending on latitude and season, has risen by several hundred feet since 1979.
This height increase does not directly affect Earth, the scientists say, but is important as an indication that the troposphere is becoming warmer and the stratosphere is becoming cooler.
The results showed that the depletion of stratospheric ozone combined with human emissions of greenhouse gases accounted for more than 80 percent of the rise in the tropopause.
The study also gives support to scientists, including Wigley and lead author Benjamin Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who believe temperatures in the upper troposphere are increasing.
Researchers have been at odds over whether satellite data indicate that atmospheric temperatures are rising or stable.
"The increase in the height of the tropopause appears to support the data set that shows the troposphere is warming," Wigley said.
A New View of Old Growth ForestsPORTLAND, Oregon, July 25, 2003 (ENS) - A Forest Service ecologist reports that new research shows that old growth forests contain many stages of forest development and differ widely in character with age, geographic location, and disturbance history.
The research counters general acceptances that old-growth forests are ecosystems defined as forests with old trees and related structural attributes like large trees, large dead woody material on the forest floor, and horizontal and vertical canopy diversity, according to Tom Spies, ecologist at the Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station.
Spies and colleagues, who shared their findings at a recent Forest Service workshop, examined the old-growth Douglas-fir along the Pacific coast.
Spies says that Pacific coast old-growth forests are diverse regionally in both their structure and their development because of differences in climate, history, fire history, site productivity, and species composition.
Dominant trees have a wide range of ages in many old-growth forests, Spies explained, and today's old-growth forests develop along multiple pathways, and disturbance continues to be a natural and important part of this development.
"If we have learned anything in the last 30 years," Spies explains, "it is that our understanding of ecosystems will change, just as our understanding of old-growth forests changed during the late 20th century."
Spies reported that in some old-growth forests fire suppression has resulted in an uncharacteristically high buildup of fuels, whereas in other old-growth forests fire suppression has had little or no impact on fuels because fuel loads are naturally high.
Today's old-growth forests developed from disturbances and under the climate conditions of the last millennium, the ecologist reported, and the particular composition and structure of these old-growth forests may not occur again under modern climate and disturbance regimes.
"As we discover greater complexity in forests than we ever imagined, we will need to develop greater complexity in our cultural responses to forests as well," Spies said.
Deepwater Caribbean Coral Reefs ThrivingFALMOUTH, Massachusetts, July 25, 2003 (ENS) - Deepwater coral reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands may occupy a much larger area and be in better health than previously thought, say researchers who gathered evidence with a new autonomous underwater vehicle that flies through the sea like a helicopter.
Scientists and engineers used an autonomous underwater vehicle and imaging platform called SeaBED for a study to determine the health of deepwater coral reefs and related spawning areas for commercial fisheries.
Although recent reports indicate shallow reefs in the Caribbean and around the world are threatened, this new study found well-developed deeper water coral reefs with nearly 100 percent living coral cove.
The scientists report that this highly unusual in the Caribbean where disease, pollution, land run-off and other factors have caused widespread coral mortality in shallower reefs in the past few decades.
Until now, little information was available on the structure and composition of the deeper coral reefs due to the depths of these insular shelf reefs, which are beyond the safe range of SCUBA diving at 90 to 200 feet deep and some 10 miles from land.
The research team surveyed two reef areas, the Marine Conservation District Hind Bank and the South Drop, in June south of St. Thomas and St. John in the US Virgin Islands.
Both reefs are 30 to 80 meters (90 to 265 feet) below the surface and the vehicle "flew" seven lines, or transects, each several miles long over the banks, collecting color images every three seconds during the week-long project.
The banks had never been mapped or imaged before, and researchers say the diversity and abundance of coral species and the health of the corals was a major surprise.
"Until this survey, we did not know what kind of corals we have, how healthy they are, how deep the reefs extend or how large the reefs actually are and what marine life lives there because no one had ever seen them," said Graciela Garcia-Moliner of the Caribbean Fishery Management Council (CFMC) scientific staff. "We had only nautical charts of the area, but no maps or images. SeaBED has opened a whole new world to us, and we are surprised at how healthy and abundant the corals are."
The team included Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist Hanumant Singh, graduate students Chris Roman and Ryan Eustice, and postdoctoral investigator Ali Can in collaboration with Roy Armstrong of the University of Puerto Rico and observer Liane Guild of NASA Ames Research Center.
Scientists from the University of the Virgin Islands and the CFMC also assisted with the study, which was primarily funded by the National Science Foundation.